From My Portfolio

MSN: Spooked In London

 In Africa the air smelled of dust and dry weeds and wild flowers. I slept in a white tent on the Masai Mara, an endless stand of waving yellow grass. Guards brandishing black rifles patrolled the circular camp to ward off prowling lions.

Every morning the big flat sky turned pink over the Mara. Kenya was lovely until, one by one, every member of our safari came down with a mysterious illness. Chills, stomach pains, fever. I didn't succumb until the very end of the trip, after we got to Nairobi and boarded a jet.

By the time we reached London, I was too wretched to fly on to the U.S. Not knowing anybody in London, I phoned a booking agent from the airport — asking for a room, any room. I didn't care where, as long as I could get there fast.

 Then I rode the Underground to Earl's Court, that infamous stretch of red brick on London's flyspecked fringe. A place where, as Jonathan Raban writes, "The streets swarm with Europe's new arrivals: refugees, the hopeful, the new rich, the new poor, people in transit between an old life and a problematic future."

 Coming from hardy immigrant stock myself, I might have found this raffish neighborhood intriguing in other circumstances. But a moonless dark had already descended, and all I felt was weariness. I trudged through neon streets jammed with betting parlors, disreputable pubs and cafés that served chipped beef and other horrors.

 The only thing that kept me going was a vision I had of the room awaiting me. Neat and clean, with a Miss Marple type in starched cotton and permed gray hair to nurse me back to health. A few blocks from the station I found my grim hotel and pushed open the heavy metal door. What foreign land was this? Reeking of bacon and fried bread, the lobby was a tower of babble, unbearable in my feverish state. Only the desk clerk spoke English. She was a plump, pitiless young woman with masses of bleached hair skewered into a bun.

 "Your key," she said, holding up a large metal object. "If you lose it, you'll pay for it. Breakfast from 8 to 10 in the morning. No breakfast after those hours."

 "Where's my room?" I managed to ask. She pointed to the stairs. "Two floors straight up. I've put you in a bedsitter."

 I shuddered. I knew all about bedsitters from reading Barbara Pym novels. They were tiny, mean rooms — rest stops for the desperate. People drank themselves to death in bedsitters or turned on the gas. In one English mystery novel, a little blonde typist named Lyla dies when an axe murderer breaks into her bedsitter, The room in Earl's Court was clean enough — and efficient as the clerk. Just a fold-up bed, a scrap of blue carpet, a TV and toilet. I unfolded the bed and crawled under the blankets.

Soon I started to sweat. I pried open the narrow window. Diesel fumes flooded the room. I threw the covers over me. Too hot. I threw off the covers. Too cold. This went on and on. Shortly after midnight, I heard a scratching at the window. I threw off the covers in fright. A young girl floated through the half-open window like Cathy in Wuthering Heights. She had long straight black hair and the look of a waif. She sat on the bed. She could not be ignored. To my horror, I recognized this ghost. She was a younger, braver version of myself.

 "So you've been to Africa …" She lit an unfiltered cigarette. French, of course. "And you only stayed two weeks? Weren't you going to live there someday — not just go on safari with a bunch of rich people?" "Go away."

I yanked the covers over my head. "I can't be traveling all the time."

 It was useless to argue with this waif — so proud of her backpack, her tattered blue jeans and leather bracelets. She was 22. The age I was when I fled my hick hometown and escaped to Europe. At first, I couldn't have been more scared. I couldn't get the hang of foreign money or maps or phrases. I cried when desk clerks gave me a bad time. But eventually I learned how to get by with sign language and bits of French and help from strangers. The important thing then was to keep traveling. I loved to chuck it all and climb aboard a train.

 Now that I was in my thirties, I knew London. I could have showed that waif where to find William Blake's grave and oil paintings of the Bronte sisters. "I've been lots more places than you have," I told her. "I've got a husband now. And a baby. I can't just move to Africa on a whim." "You sound just like your mother." She laughed. Then she floated out the window, as free as the swallows that will circle Earl's Court until the end of time.

 The next morning, I still felt wretched, but I decided that (as soon as I felt better), I would get back at that smug little ghost by going somewhere she'd never been. Flipping through a tattered guidebook, I settled on Keats House — the last home of John Keats, the doomed young poet who fled to Italy and died of tuberculosis. I had loved a poem of his ever since my stranded childhood. I had a dove, and the sweet dove died; And I have thought it died of grieving; O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied With a single thread of my own hand's weaving Late that afternoon I finally found the strength to ride the Underground from the soot of Earl's Court to the posh ivy-draped village of Hampstead. T

here I found Keats House, a beautiful white Regency building with gardens all around. The front door opened to a sitting room so serene that I could imagine Keats lying on that couch scrawling "Ode to a Nightingale." "How charming," I thought, realizing in the same instant that I was about to throw up. I swayed down the stairs to the basement. There I found a guard, a nice old man in a neatly pressed blue uniform.

 "I got this stomach thing in Africa," I said. "You crazy Yanks." He chuckled as he unlocked the bathroom door. Afterwards I tiptoed upstairs. I was mesmerized by Keats' short, soft-looking bed, draped in white linen. I pictured the fevers he'd endured, the aches and pains. I felt that, in a small way, we were kindred spirits. Then the guard showed me out. It was good to walk the cobblestone streets of Hampstead. It had been hot in Africa, but here it was cool and pleasant. Red leaves crumbled under my feet.

 The more I moved, the more cheerful I became. By the time I got back to Earl's Court, it was starting to get dark. Dirty papers blew across my feet. Taxis nearly ran me down. But twilight had softened the muddy brick buildings. In a pool of yellow light, a bearded Arab man sold gyros from a stand. He sliced a slab of lamb with a big knife and folded juicy bits into pita bread. I strolled back to my hotel. Now that my fever was lifting, the guests appeared raffish and adventuresome, instead of merely foreign. I wondered what their stories were.

My room felt like a sanctuary — clean and quiet. I was glad that I knew nobody in London. For that one night, I didn't want to be anybody's friend, wife or mother. I wanted to remember Africa — the night air, the rumbling of big cats, the famous snows of Kilimanjaro. I also wanted to remember that spooky night in London and the freakish fever that had forced me to wrestle with my own ghost.

 Now, what did I promise myself when I was a young girl? Always to wander. Never to be owned. Would that bold girl be proud of me? I didn't know. Nobody has freedom all the time. Love itself is a ball and chain. Yet beyond the seediness of Earl's Court lay the glitter of London. New cities, night trains, borders I had yet to cross. There is no end to wanderlust.
by Candace Dempsey